Negotiation 101: Master research, empathy, and stagecraft

|2019-09-11T13:15:19-04:00April 9th, 2019|

 Journalist Ronan Farrow says he’s not a great negotiator, but he’s certainly had a unique opportunity to see how one works. Just out of law school, he was recruited by the U.S. State Department’s Richard Holbrooke, a master diplomat. Farrow also had the chance to speak to and learn from some of our age’s most highly regarded negotiators for his book War on Peace. In his Big Think Edge video, “Diplomacy 101: Four Team Qualities that Yield Results,” Farrow shares what he’s learned about the philosophies and methods that underlie effective negotiations.

The power of empathy

Farrow is primarily a journalist these days, and he says successful journalism and diplomacy are both fundamentally built on a foundation of empathy. The ability to understand the objectives, fears, and desires of your audience or negotiating opposite is absolutely critical.

In diplomacy, empathy guides skillful negotiators to a conversation in which both parties are interested and engaged. It’s also the case that agreement is most likely to be reached when both sides feel their needs are being satisfactorily addressed.

A less-obvious element of that understanding is a deep knowledge of your opponent’s history, which can supply additional context that illuminates the meanings behind what’s not being said. On top of that, it’s also helpful to know the history of previous negotiations. Farrow considers it vital to have on your team a “core of experts who specifically are tasked with understanding the pressure points of a region — and the last time we had a conversation there and why it failed.”

Depth in diversity

In his experience working with Holbrooke, Farrow considers himself to have been an example of his mentor’s faith in having a wildly diverse “crew with all of these different ethnic backgrounds, ideological backgrounds, experiences in totally different walks of life that you wouldn’t normally see in the corridors of the state department.”

A team like this played well off Holbrooke’s personal blend of gravity and mischief. Being a master negotiator, says Farrow, means having two key attributes: A strong institutional knowledge on one hand, and a taste for disruption on the other. A person who combines these traits is both technically skilled and a dynamic performer who can remain in control of a negotiation.

It’s show time

As Farrow says, “There’s a lot of theater to old-school diplomacy,” and so a performance is just what a negotiation may become. During the delicate Bosnia negotiations, for example, Holbrooke arranged to have his team’s luggage piled up in a hallway outside the talks, wordlessly implying to his counterparts that his team’s patience might be running out. At another point, he cannily seated strongman Slobodan Milošević in the shade of an American bomber, an amusing if not-so-subtle bit of stagecraft.

Patience, please

Farrow also points out that though quiet, steady diplomacy often lacks the flashiness of “things going boom,” it’s often the circumstance in which the most long-lasting and important agreements can develop. One of the key considerations in any negotiation, he says, is keeping everyone at the table and the conversation going, no matter how tough it gets. These are the talks, Farrow reminds us, that often have the best chance of leading to the most meaningful results.